Google’s attack on media freedom
ZeroHedge and the Federalist have been punished by Google for failing to delete offensive comments.
Two right-leaning politics websites, ZeroHedge and the Federalist, have become the latest victims of Silicon Valley censorship.
Google has banned ZeroHedge from its advertising platform, while warning conservative website Federalist it could face the same fate unless prompt action is taken.
Both sites have been accused of indulging in conspiracy theories and fake news in the past. But it is not these site’s own articles that Google is objecting to — it’s the comments other people have left on their articles. The Federalist has now deleted its comments section entirely in response to Google’s warning.
To hold publications responsible for the words of their commentators opens up a dangerous can of worms. The loss of advertising revenue from Google could mean a serious financial hit for certain sites. There is no reason why other sites could not be similarly affected.
A number of conservative commentators see Google’s ban and warning as yet another example of tech giants and a supposedly liberal media censoring opinions they disagree with. Trump supporters have pointed out that Google’s move could have profound implications for the presidential election.
The whole saga has the feel of a hitjob. A journalist at NBC reported the sites’ supposed violations to Google, which is believed to have prompted Google’s warning to the Federalist (the ZeroHedge ban was enforced the week before). The NBC journalist later thanked two pro-censorship lobby organisations – Stop Funding Fake News and the Center for Countering Digital Hate – for their ‘hard work and collaboration’ in getting Google to take action. In other words, a mainstream media company has weaponised tech censorship against smaller rivals with politically opposed views.
These are deeply worrying developments for free speech and media freedom.
YouTube is deleting comments with two phrases that insult China’s Communist Party
These Chinese language phrases are removed within seconds.
YouTube is automatically deleting comments that contain certain Chinese-language phrases related to criticism of the country’s ruling Communist Party (CCP). The company confirmed to The Verge this was happening in error and that it’s working to fix the issue.
“Upon review by our teams, we have confirmed this was an error in our enforcement systems and we are working to fix it as quickly as possible,” said a YouTube spokesperson. The company did not elaborate on how or why this error came to be, but said it was not the result of any change in its moderation policy.
But if the deletions are the result of a simple mistake, then it’s one that’s gone unnoticed for six months. The Verge found evidence that comments were being deleted as early as October 2019, when the issue was raised on YouTube’s official help pages and multiple users confirmed that they had experienced the same problem.
Comments left under videos or in live streams that contain the words “共匪” (“communist bandit”) or “五毛” (“50-cent party”) are automatically deleted in around 15 seconds, though their English language translations and Romanized Pinyin equivalents are not.
The term “共匪” is an insult that dates back to China’s Nationalist government, while “五毛,” (or “wu mao”) is a derogatory slang term for internet users paid to direct online discussion away from criticism of the CCP. The name comes from claims that such commenters are paid 50 Chinese cents per post.
These phrases seem to have been accidentally added to YouTube’s comment filters, which automatically remove spam and offensive text. The comments are removed too quickly for human moderation and are deleted even if the banned phrases are used positively (e.g., “The 五毛 are doing a fantastic job”). YouTube says it’s been relying more on its automated filters in recent months due changes to its workforce brought about by the pandemic.
The accidental censorship is even more puzzling considering that YouTube is currently blocked in China, giving its parent company, Google, even less reason to censor comments critical of the CCP or apply moderation systems in accordance with Chinese censorship laws.
The automatic deletion of these phrases was highlighted on Tuesday by US technologist and former Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on Twitter. But earlier reports of the issue date back to the middle of May when they were spotted by human rights activist Jennifer Zeng. As mentioned above, though, The Verge also found complaints on YouTube’s official help pages dated to October 2019.
Google has frequently been criticized for accommodating the wishes of the CCP by censoring content. Most notably, it created a prototype search engine known as Project Dragonfly that complied with Chinese state censorship. The project, which was never deployed, is part of the company’s long-running struggles to enter the Chinese market.
When news of Dragonfly leaked in 2018 in a report from The Intercept, Google was criticized by politicians and its own employees for selling out its principles. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2019, the company said it had “terminated” the project and that it had “no plans to launch Search in China.”
‘Testing the Death Star’: Ted Cruz says ‘evil’ Google has become ‘the Empire in Star Wars‘
Sen. Ted Cruz claimed Google was acting like villains from Star Wars after an NBC News article claimed the company had barred two conservative websites from earning ad revenue.
“Google today has become like the Empire in Star Wars,” Cruz, a Republican from Texas, told Fox News host Dana Perino on Wednesday. “What they’re doing with this step is testing the Death Star.”
On Tuesday, Google was accused of pulling the ad revenue for the Federalist and finance website ZeroHedge, leading many conservatives to allege a pattern of bias against websites that do not adhere to liberal political ideology. In a Tuesday night tweet addressing the article, Google said they warned the Federalist for having a comment section that was “dangerous or derogatory.”
Cruz, who earlier in the day sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai questioning the company’s censorship standards, rejected the terms of Google’s argument, pointing to a number of left-wing outlets including HuffPost, Jezebel, and Salon, all of which allow comments on articles.
He accused Google of monopolizing free speech and said that it had become “evil” over the years.
“This is the latest escalation,” Cruz said. “Google is a monopoly. It has more control, more power over information, than any entity in the history of mankind. And you know, Google’s motto used to be ‘Don’t be evil.’ They deleted that motto. Now, their motto just seems to be ‘evil.'”
Cruz said if Google and others were not regulated in some fashion, they would continue to target news and opinion deemed unsavory by censorship boards.
“If Google has the ability to demonetize, not just individuals which they’ve been going after, but now media organizations,” he said. “That power, that’s a power to go after Fox News, that’s a power to go after any media organization they disagree with, and they cannot abuse their monopoly power to silence free speech. They need to stop this right now.”
Discrimination Suit Filed Against Google, YouTube
Google and YouTube face a class action discrimination lawsuit after allegedly denying equal access to services based on users’ racial and sexual identities. The plaintiffs accused Google and YouTube of systematically filtering out content from creators based on their personal identities and viewpoints. The case filed Tuesday is being held in the Northern District of California before Magistrate Judge Virginia K. DeMarchi.
Plaintiffs Kimberly Carleste Newman, Lisa Cabrera, Catherine Jones, and Denotra Nicole Lewis are YouTube content creators and identify as African American women. They each operate separate YouTube channels, posting videos “that discuss and present information regarding issues and current events which are important to the African American community.” Their channels have collectively garnered millions of views and have generated thousands of dollars in revenue since creation. The plaintiffs alleged that they have suffered monetarily and have lost viewers because of the defendants’ discriminatory behavior. According to the complaint, there are at least 42 million members of the putative class, which consists of those similarly situated to the plaintiffs.
The allegedly discriminatory practices conducted by Google include but are not limited to “shadow banning [blocking content in a manner where the user cannot easily tell that they have been banned] entire channels and videos” based on a creator’s race, “misapplying ‘restricted mode’” to videos which discuss important issues to the creators, and “promoting and profiting off of hate speech” by allowing racist videos directed at the plaintiffs. Google and YouTube’s terms of service, which have been merged since December 2019, both prohibit racial discrimination and hate speech. The complaint also noted that although the defendants’ representatives testified under oath in 2018 that YouTube is “a neutral public forum,” its widespread censorship violates freedom of expression.
As a result of Google and YouTube’s alleged discrimination, the plaintiffs seek an award of damages and an injunction requiring the company to “cease and desist from capriciously restricting, demonetizing, or otherwise censoring any content of videos uploaded to the YouTube based on Plaintiffs’ race, or other identity or viewpoint in violation of federal and California law.” The plaintiffs are represented by Browne George Ross.
DOJ to unveil plans to strip tech giants of protection from being sued over content on their platforms after Donald Trump accused Google, Facebook and Twitter of anti-conservative bias
The Justice Department is preparing to roll back the legal protections big tech companies have used to shield themselves from lawsuits over their content, a move that comes after President Donald Trump threatened to shut them down over what he says is bias against conservatives.
The reforms would make companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter more liable for a wide array of content posted on their sites.
And it would also push those companies to be more aggressive in addressing harmful conduct on their sites, The Wall Street Journal reported, and to be fairer and more consistent in their decisions to take down or downplay content.
The plan from the Justice Department involves legislative reform to the law known as Section 230 – the original legal code governing the internet – so it would have to be adopted by Congress, including approval from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to become law.
It would say that the companies have to show they acted in ‘good faith’ when they removed or downplayed content for being ‘objectionable.’ Currently they are essentially free to act as they wish.
Conservatives say they have used that discretion to censor or downplay material from right-leaning websites, a row which exploded Tuesday when Google threatened to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative website founded by Meghan McCain’s husband Ben Domenech.
Another part of the proposal would make them more liable for content related to child exploitation and terrorism.
If passed the proposal would change decades of legal protection enjoyed by social media companies.
The move is the next step in the administration’s war on big tech over claims of anti-conservative bias, and comes after President Trump signed an executive order at the end of May that limited the companies’ legal protections.
But legal experts said the president’s order would likely have little effect on tech companies. It was immediately challenged in court.
A change in law pushed by the Justice Department would have greater impact.
Democrats and Republicans have found rare common ground in attacking Section 230. The law, adopted in the the 1990s, is seen by both sides as out of date in governing the rapidly evolving internet.
That law gave big tech companies immunity from lawsuits that would have threatened the existence of the then-infant companies but now it protects the online giants from liability.
Democrats complain the law allows social media companies to spread political falsehoods, disinformation, and hate speech while Republicans claim it allows the stifling of conservative voices.
The president has been one of big tech’s biggest critics on the matter, claiming the companies silence conservative voices.
‘We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly,’ Trump said in the Oval Office on May 28 when he signed the order. ‘A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States.’
That order came after Twitter marked some of tweets as needing more information, a move that infuriated the president.
The debate over the president tweets highlights the struggle social media platform have as they try to balance freedom of speech with cracking down on misinformation.
The Justice Department’s proposal would strip big tech companies of the civil immunity they have in a number of areas, including third-party content or activity that violates federal criminal law or situations involving online child exploitation and sexual abuse, terrorism or cyberstalking.
It would also make clear the companies don’t have immunity in civil enforcement actions brought by the federal government, and can’t use immunity as a defense against antitrust claims, The Journal reported.
Additionally, Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a close ally of President Trump, introduced legislation that would allow users to sue social media platforms over accusations of censorship of political speech.
A user could sue any large platform – with more than 30 million users in the U.S. in a month – that are not ‘operating in good faith’ for $5,000 and attorneys’ fees.
Under current law, tech platforms are generally not legally liable for the actions of their users, except in rare, small cases. The social media companies also have a broad ability to police their sites of content as they see fit.
Meghan McCain tweeted: ‘Google is now trafficking in digital fascism. How soon until all conservative speech and publications are completely banned?’
Donald Trump Jr. said the company was trying to have it ‘both ways’ by on the one hand seemingly trying to hold The Federalist accountable for comments posted on its site while shirking responsibility for what appears on its own search results page – something that has recently been called into question by the president as tech giants’ way of getting out of being sued.
And, in a letter to Google on Monday night, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said Google’s actions ‘raise serious concerns that it is abusing its monopoly power in an effort to censor political speech with which it disagrees’.
‘Google seems more than happy to play this censorship role by trying to break the financial back of a media publication with which it disagrees.
‘Whether or not one agrees with this characterization, destroying the publisher’s ability to use advertising to reach willing readers should be wholly beyond the pale,’ Cruz continued.
He said it was indicative of the ‘bigger problem’ that ‘the culture of free speech in this country is under attack.’
‘Google is helping lead the charge,’ he went on.
The company has in the past been accused of promoting left-wing sites over right-wing counterparts but insists its algorithms are impartial.